Written by Dr. Shahid Athar   

With the population of Muslims in the US growing to about eight million now and Muslim physicians to about 18,000, non-Muslim American physicians will have to deal with medical ethics concerning Muslim patients.

The introduction of new technology in medicine in areas of sustaining life support systems, organ transplantation, biotechnical parenting and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, have presented new questions, and affected our outlook in medical ethics. Muslim patients, their families and their physicians need to update their current knowledge and the Islamic perspective in these areas. An attempt has been made to present the Islamic perspective as mentioned in the Quran.

The introduction of modem medical technology has posed perplexing new questions for Muslims, the answers to which they are still seeking. Muslim masses are ignorant and naive, behaving like the ostrich which, on seeing a danger, buries its head in the sand and thinks that it is safe. In general, Muslims are split into two groups: One group is educated and modernized and would accept anything labeled as scientific, irrespective of religious or moral considerations. The other group of so-called Islamic scholars have knowledge of Islam, but not of medical sciences. They are quick to give their opinion on everything. However, both groups should be reminded that Islam is not a religion of personal opinions. "It is notfittingfor a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Prophet, to have any option about the decision. If anyone disobeys God and His Apostle, he is indeed on a clearly wrong path" (33:36). Muslims living in an advanced Western society cannot stay aloof from the issues surrounding them. All factors affecting non-Muslims, sooner or later, directly or indirectly, will affect them too. The basic question in medical ethics is, "Who is the giver of life and death?" Should man control his life and death and that of other humans? Man now "thinks" he can create life or take it away, prolong life (or misery). Are physicians to serve the creatures of God, or act as God themselves? The Quran reminds man of his lowly origin and real position in life, "Does not man see that it is we who created him from sperm? Yet behold! He stands as an open adversary! And he makes comparisons for us, and forgets his own creation. He says who can give life to (d ) bones and decomposed ones? Say "He will give them life who created them for the first time, for He is versed in every kind of creation" (36:77-79).


The Right To Live And To Die: The care of the terminally ill is becoming very expensive. It is costing billions of dollars to keep patients alive in a vegetative state in intensive care units. The concept of euthanasia (mercy killing) is being revived. In 1987, 23,000 cases occurred in Holland. The question is who determines (the unconscious patient, the family, or the doctor) that the plug should be pulled and the life support system be stopped? What is the definition of death? Is the living will justifiable? Is stopping the life support system an act of mercy, a medical decision, a murder, or just a financial decision?

The Islamic Perspective

Islam does not believe in prolonging life as everyone has been created for a certain life span. Scientists are to assist, but not replace God in the creation of death of human beings. Islamic morality starts in the womb and extends to the tomb. Islam places great emphasis on the sanctity of life and the reality of death. "If anyone killed a person, unless it is for murder or spreading mischief on earth, it would be as if he killed all of mankind. And if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the lives of all mankind" (5:35). "Every soul shall have a taste of death" (2:35). "No soul can die except by God's permission" (3:185).

Thus, while Islam gives importance to saving lives (medical treatment or otherwise) it makes it clear that dying is a part of the contract (with God) and the final decision (of term) is up to God. The quality of life is equally or more important than the duration of living.

My humble suggestion is that the physician and the family should realize their limitations and not attempt heroic measures for a terminally ill patient or to prolong artificially a life (or misery). The heroic measures taken at the beginning of life (i.e. saving a premature baby) may be more justified than at the end of a life span, though each case should be considered on individual basis.

Islam is categorically opposed to euthanasia (mercy killing) and regards it as an act of murder. We do not see the difference between the gun used by a husband for his dying wife and the syringe used by the physician for his dying patient. Both are weapons of death, no matter what the intentions of the killer was.


Nowadays many diseased organs are being replaced by healthy organs from living donors, cadavers and from animal sources. Successful bone marrow, kidney, liver, cornea, pancreas, heart and nerve cell transplantations have taken place. The incidence is limited only by cost and availability of the organs.

The ethical questions are what are the rights of the living donor, the dead body and the recipient. To prolong a life, does the recipient have a right to take away the organs from the dead? Is the sale of organs justified? Is the taking of animal organs justified? Is accepting organs from aborted fetuses justified? Is the cost of transplantation worth the benefit derived from it? The cost of a heart transplantation alone is $70,000 now, not including long term care. Will harvesting fetal tissues lead to more abortions?


The Islamic Perspective

The basic question is who owns our organs, we, our relatives, or our Creator?
A. Animal to Human: If we can kill them for our food and let their meat become our flesh, why can we not use their cornea to give us eyesight?
B. Living to Living: This is like giving a gift at no cost. The sale is prohibited. C. Dead to Living: This is not permitted since it involves the desecration of the dead body.


Currently about 2 million fetuses per year or 4000 per day are aborted in the U.S. The medico-ethical questions are many. Is abortion equal to murder? When is a fetus a living being? What are the rights of the fetus? Who guards those rights? Do both parents (even unwed) have the same rights over the life of the fetus? If life is a gift of God, who are we to take it away? Is killing an infant and the aged and terminally ill the same thing? What should be done with the pregnancy that is the outcome of rape? What is the role of Muslim obstetrician? Is the sale of aborted fetus for transplantation of tissues and organs, or of their delicate skin to make expensive cosmetics, justified?


The Islamic Perspective
Islam considers abortion of a viable fetus an infanticide except when done to save the life of the mother. Even in this situation every attempt should be made to save both lives. The fetus is alive as a cell from the very beginning, with shaping starting at four weeks and movement at four months. According to the Traditions, at 120 days the angel visits the fetus and blows the spirit into it. This coincides with starting of the baby's first movement. The viability of the fetus medically has improved with the development of neonatalology. The smallest infant ever saved, weighed 4 oz at 3 1/2 months.

The Quran refers to abortion in many places, "Kill not your children forfear of want. We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily the killing of them is a great sin" (I 7:3 1). "Kill not your children on a plea of want. We will provide sustenancefor you andfor them. Come not near shameful deeds whether open or secret. Take not life which God has made sacred except by way of justice and law. Thus He commands you that you may leam wisdom" (6:15 1). "The pledge of the believing women that they shall not kill their children" (60:02). "And when the female infant who was buried alive is asked for what crime she was killed?" (81:2).

The liberated women of today are not killing their infants for fear of want or for the shame of the birth of a girl, but rather to enjoy the life of sexual freedom. "Such at took their way of life to be mere amusement and play and were deceived by the life of this world. That day We shallforget them as theyforgot the meeting of this day of theirs and as they were bent upon rejecting Our signs" (7:5 1).


Infertility and the desire of a couple to have a child of their own is not a new problem. However new techniques to solve this have added a new twist. Now we have successful technology to fertilize an egg outside the uterus (test tube babies) and inject sperm into the uterus from the husband or a surrogate male donor, take the ovum of a woman and fertilize it with the sperm of her husband and inject it into the uterus of another woman for incubation.

The questions are:

  • a. Is marriage a legal contract between a man and a woman or is it a sacred covenant between the two, and God is the witness of such?
  • b. Was the child bom of an intact legal marriage or outside the marriage?
  • c. In the case of the surrogate father, who is the real father and does the child have the right to know who he is?
  • d. In case of the surrogate mother, who is the real mother, the one whose ovum is being used, or the one who lets her uterus be used?
  • e. Is renting a uterus for this purpose allowed or justified?
  • f. A woman married or single can technically have one child per month if she lets her ovum be fertilized by different sperm incubated each month in a hired uterus. This will save her the pains of pregnancy, labor and lactation. Is this right?
The Islamic Perspective

In Islam the marriage of a man and a woman is not just a financial and physical arrangement of living together but a sacred contract, a gift of God, to enjoy each other physically and continue the lineage. "And God has createdfor you matesfrom among yourselves, and madefor you, out of them, sons and daughters grandchildren. And providedfor you sustenance of the best: will they then believe in vain things and be ungrateful to God's favors?" (16:72). "Among His signs is that He created mates for you from among yourselves, so that you may find tranquility with them, and He has put love and compassion between you. Verily in this are signs for people who reflect" (30:21).

The Prophet (PBUH) has emphasized marriage by saying, "Marriage is my tradition. He who rejects my tradition is not of me." In fact he described marriage as half of religion, the other half being God-consciousness. As such introduction of any biomedical technique into this sacred contract of marriage is a violation of Islamic law.

Some prophets were childless and asked God to give them children (ref. Quran 19:2-7 and 21:89-90 for the prayers of Zakariya and 51:28-39 for the story of Abraham and Sarah). This means that one may seek parenthood in a legitimate way only, recognizing that God above controls it. "To God belongs the dominion of the heavens and earth. He creates what He wills, He bestows (children) male orfemale, or He bestows both males andfemales, and He leaves barren whom He pleases: for He is all knowledgeable, All-powerful" (42:49-50).

Biotechnical parenting is, however, permissible if it is within an intact marriage i.e. during the life span of marriage. Artificial insemination using the husband's sperm, fertilized in the uterus of the wife or the test tube is allowed.

Surrogate motherhood is not acceptable because of two questions:
a. Who is the mother?
b. What will be the child's lineage. "None can be their mother except those who gave them birth (58:2). "It is He who created man from water, then has He established the relationship of lineage and marriage, for your Lord has power over all things" (25:54).

Islam recognizes the sacredness of the womb (uterus). "O mankind! Revere your Lord who created you from a single person and created, of like nature, his mate, andfrom them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women. Revere God through whom you demand your mutual rights and (revere) the womb (that bore you), for God ever watches you" (4:1).


AIDS is spreading like a plague. About 200,000 cases have been reported in the US alone, half of whom have already died. One case is being reported every 14 minutes. The Center for Disease Control officially estimates that 1.5 million Americans are infected with HIV. It is projected that 365,000 active cases will be reported in the USA by 2000. According to Dr. James Curran of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta the figure may be as high as 440,000. You don't have to be homosexual to get AIDS through sexual transmission and sharing needles with IV drug users is the main mode of transmission. 18,000 hemophiliacs have AIDS now due to blood transfusions. 15% of all AIDS victims are women and about 540 children are reported to have the infection. The spread of AIDS is changing the sexual life style of single women and men. AIDS has been reported in 152 countries. Next to the USA, the highest numbers in the western countries are France, West Germany and Britain. The total number of AIDS victims in the world is 177,965 now. The economics of AIDS are startling. In the USA, the medical care cost of AIDS will rise from $1.8 billion in 1986 to $8.5 billion in 1991, the research, education and screen from $542 million to $2.3 billion and a total cost from $7 billion to $55.6 billion.

Ethical Questions Related To The Care of AIDS Patients Are

  1. Who will pay for the cost of AIDS cases since insurance companies will not insure them?
  2. Should AIDS patients be quarantined and forced to change their lifestyle?
  3. Should HIV drug users be given free clean needles, syringes and drugs?
  4. Should HIV positive carriers carry an ID card?
  5. Should someone be tested for HIV without his knowledge and what should be done with positive results?
  6. Does paying for AIDS cases by the public or the government mean that they endorse the lifestyle of the patients?

The Islamic perspective, though not clearly defined, would be the prevention of the disease and after its occurrence treating it like any other disease, i.e., tuberculosis, syphilis, or small pox. We never question the lifestyle of patients with other common diseases i.e. diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease in order to discriminate them or restrict their care. AIDS may be "a wrath of God" because of certain lifestyles, but many "innocent" people are affected by it. Therefore, they should not be penalized. In each community every attempt should be made to prevent the spread of the disease but once it has affected an individual full attention and care must be given to lessen his or her suffering and maintain the dignity and quality of life.


I have tried to present ethics as it is being practiced with questions for those involved. I have not attempted to give detailed accounts of each biomedical techniques. I am sure most of the readers, medical or non- medical have some knowledge in this area. With eight million Muslims in the US and 18,000 Muslim physicians, it will be wise that non-Muslim physicians, clergy and law makers become acquainted with the Islamic perspective of medical ethics. I strongly recommend that each institution dealing with question of life and death, a local Muslim physician be on the medical ethics committee.


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